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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Begley

Big emotions, small bodies: Helping young people manage anger.

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Working with children and teenagers, I often hear the words "I'm angry".

Anger often coincides with not engaging with school, damaged home relationships, and lashing out physically and emotionally, leading to a plethora of emotional, social and educational problems. It is an overwhelming, scary, and complex emotion, an emotion that many adults may even struggle to fully understand and cope with.

As a child, there may be lots of reasons to be angry. You may get a question wrong in class, your friends may not invite you to their sleepover, your favourite toy might get lost- the reasons are endless, and for some sensitive children (especially with histories of trauma and emotional difficulties), some triggers for anger may appear small and more frequently.

As children grow and experience more situations, they usually become more resilient, and their emotions become more under control as they learn to deal with things.

But some children may need some guidance in how to manage and process their big emotions.

The first step is encouraging a child to understand what emotion they are feeling.

Asking questions like...

  • What was happening when you started feeling this way?

  • How does your body feel?

  • What thoughts are in your head?

  • What would make you feel better/different?

... is a good way to gauge a young person's emotional state and then label and recognise what the emotion is.

Putting a label on the emotion is important to help the child recognise their feelings, understand it's a normal experience, and learn and remember how to deal with it again in the future.

Here are a few techniques you can suggest at home or in school to help manage and process your children's most overwhelming emotions.

  • Walking away from a trigger situation. Where possible, leaving a stressful situation to a quiet and private place can keep those overwhelming emotions from overflowing. Avoiding the situations is not the answer, but letting children know they can walk away when they feel their anger bubbling is a good starting point.

  • Counting to 10. Taking a few seconds to distract a child's angry brain by counting slowly to 10 can be enough time to diffuse a situation, calm down, and put things into perspective.

  • Deep breathing. Similarly, deep breathing disengages the fight or flight response, restoring the body to calm. Check out this article on how deep breathing can help manage anger.

  • Find a trusted person to talk to. This could be a parent at home, a sibling, or in school, a teacher or teaching assistant. Children with consistent and trusted grown ups can encourage routine discussion about emotions, rather than physical lashing out. Reminding children frequently to talk to you about their emotions can really help.

Your behaviour is also important when managing anger. Raising your voice and mirroring can escalate the situation, and make it more distressing for everyone involved. Here's some things you can do to keep control of the situation:

  • Use a calm, understanding, and controlled tone. By managing your own emotions, children can see this as an example to follow. Yelling may only frustrate a child further, reinforcing the angry emotion.

  • Empathy: by simply acknowledging why the child may feel angry can reduce that frustration that 'nobody understands'. By saying "I know you're feeling angry because your brother took your toy" brings you to the child's level, makes them feel less alone, therefore making them much more likely to engage with your problem solving and emotion talk.

  • Preparing for triggers. If you know your child or student well, you'll likely know what triggers the anger. Instead of avoiding the trigger situations altogether, you can pre-set boundaries, use time-warnings, use rewards and reinforcements, and prepare your child for the situation, reducing explosive and unexpected emotions.

  • Praise. Once the anger has passed, and you've dealt with it calmly, you can find areas of praise to reinforce different ways of managing anger. For example, "well done for talking to me about how you felt instead of using your hands" or "I'm so proud that you have worked with me to solve this problem."

Children respond best to consistency, calmness and confidence.

The most important thing to remember is that in children and young people, anger often comes from frustration. Learning to manage anger often comes from trial and error, and figuring out what works for particular children- there will often be patterns of anger.

If anger is affecting your family, relationships or safety, it's important to seek professional help. GPs can help refer children to health services that can teach anger managing techniques, and some children may benefit from anxiety or ADHD medication if previous methods haven't worked.

Here's some extra resources for managing children's anger:


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